Q: My co-worker claims that assume and presume can be used interchangeably. I know he’s wrong, and there is a difference between assume and presume but I just can’t explain why. Can you?

A: As the great Mark Twain once said, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” In those two things, we also find the subtle difference between assume and presume.

To assume is to be ignorant of other possibilities or take something for granted without proof. For example, if you are a dog person ignorant in the ways of cats, you might assume a kitty that rolls onto its back to expose its belly wants you to rub it. You would be wrong. It is a trap. And when the trap snaps shut, piercing your hand and forearm in a sneak attack of teeth and claws, you will regret your false assumption. Click here for instructions on how to pet a kitty.

To presume is to assume with confidence because you have prior experience or context (or with hubris because you think you are always right). For example, you may presume a dog to be unafraid of noisy machines after watching it ferociously chase down cars and garbage trucks. Given what you know about this dog, you are more likely to be right. However, presuming is nearly as dangerous as assuming, as in the case of this same pup who later pees on the rug at the sound of a hair dryer. Click here to better understand the paradox of dogs.

Now you can explain to your coworker the difference between assume and presume – and feel free to use cats and dogs as visual aids!

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